This is a tale of two disparate midday meals.
In one corner: Southern comfort. In the other: Swedish sophistication.
Round one: The room.
Chelsea’s Tipsy Parson (above) has a cozy, narrow dining room in shades of muted blues and grays. Seating is on the rustic side, with wooden tables and folding chairs. Our party of three was placed at a small two-top that could barely accommodate main courses and beverages, not to mention the sides. But, depending on your point of view, that may count in the plus column: Given the fact that we would’ve had to balance any additional plates on either our laps or on top of our drinks, I ordered less than I normally would have.
In part because of its Midtown location, and in part, I would imagine, because of its pedigree, Marcus Samuelsson’s Aquavit skews more adult, more modern. White walls and light fixtures are offset by warm wood accents; sleek tables offer plenty of elbow-room. It’s a cooler, more sterile environment, but one that, like its opponent’s, is well-suited to the cuisine at hand.
Verdict: Draw. Tipsy Parson’s décor falls squarely within my comfort zone, but Aquavit’s seating is actually comfortable.
Round two: The appetizers.
Right from the buzzer, Tipsy Parson lost points. The key to good fried pickles is the proper pickle-to-batter ratio, and not only were these half-moon wedges way too thick, they were also served after we were most of the way through our main courses.
We had similar luck at Aquavit with an unfortunately delayed tray of assorted breads and pastries, but we’d ordered two other appetizers that quickly made up for the nuisance. (Unfair to judge one restaurant on one dish and another restaurant on three? Perhaps. I never claimed this was a clean fight.)
The gravlax was all-around gorgeous: vibrant orange fish and nearly translucent chips, with an artfully placed dollop of hovmästar sauce here and a frond or two of fresh dill there. Though that sauce was a touch on the sweet side, a squeeze of lemon and a bite of the salty potatoes balanced things out nicely. This plate had me vowing to cure my own salmon…one of these days, at least. Stay tuned.
Our second dish was the curiously titled Bookmaker Toast. How a tower of beef tenderloin, pickled onions, fresh parsley, and leafy greens on a slice of charred bread comes by that name, I couldn’t say; it was delicious, though, albeit also on the sweet side, with the promised element of horseradish sadly missing in action.
Verdict: Aquavit. Hands down.
Round three: The main event.
When it came down to choosing my main at Tipsy Parson, I was even more indecisive than usual. A sauté of wild mushrooms and a smear of herbed ricotta, topped with scrambled eggs and served on grilled toast, called to mind a similar favorite from another restaurant; the urge to compare and contrast was strong. Shrimp and grits? Always tempting, especially when Old Bay seasoning is thrown into the mix.
Surprisingly, especially given my well-documented Achilles heel, the one item I didn’t have to consider was the oysters and eggs; two-thirds of our table ordered that combination, so I was pretty much guaranteed a taste. Unfortunately, a taste was all I could wrangle: Between the perfectly cooked eggs and the perfectly fried oysters, no one really wanted to share. Which was fine, because my own plate proved to be daunting.
I finally settled on the Pig in a Poke, a raft of two poached eggs with sliced andouille sausage, floating in a sea of cheese grits. That little bowl had some serious heft—I wasn’t hungry for the rest of the day, and that’s saying something.
The portion sizes were more delicate at Aquavit, but the food was no less satisfying. It took nearly as much effort to pick a main, but once I made up my mind to forgo something savory, the waffle was a no-brainer.
If you’re in the mood for the sweet stuff, anything served with cloudberry jam (such a dreamy name) and both whipped and iced creams—for breakfast, no less—is the way to go. The accoutrements were lick-the-plate good, but the waffle itself was light, thin, and crispy, unusual for those of us raised on the thicker, denser specimen. After a bite or two, my sweet tooth was appeased, and I swapped plates with the Carnivore.
His choice was the pyttipanna, in this case a short-rib-and-potato hash with two fried eggs, punctuated with a scoop of pickled beets that cut right through the starchy, meaty richness. The components of the hash were uniformly cut, resulting in an equal-bite ratio—unusual for the genre. And though I wanted a more of a vehicle with which to soak up that runny yolk, I couldn’t complain about much else.
If I hadn’t opted out of the savory side of the menu, the Carnivore’s brother’s grilled Welsh-rarebit sandwich would’ve been my first choice. Made with black-forest ham, roasted tomato, and västerbotten cheese, this looked and sounded like the open-faced Swedish kin of the croque monsieur, a perennial favorite. (“Looked and sounded,” because even I’m not shameless enough to beg for a bite of a serving this small. He vouched for it, though, and I trust his taste.)
Verdict: Tipsy Parson. Each set of offerings was highly edible, but I found the Southern cooking to be ever-so-slightly more enjoyable.
So, which spot takes the win? In the end, we’re looking at contenders from two different weight classes, and making apples-to-oranges comparisons. Both left me wanting more: I’m already considering a return to Aquavit for the Sunday-brunch smorgasbord, but any number of items on Tipsy Parson’s menu provoke the same inclination toward a revisit.
I’m going to call this one a tie.
I know. A complete cop-out. But really—and in keeping with our running theme of indecision, here—how on earth am I supposed to pick a favorite when both are so good?
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